The Polyglot Manifesto II

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There are, hence, two types of interlocutions required for the historian interested in future-ese. One within the discipline and one outside. One with the colleagues in Social Sciences, Physical Sciences and Computer Sciences and the other with the digital public. In both cases, the historian has to learn to speak another language – to be a polyglot – and communicate effectively. In both cases, the act of translation is key. I concede that the necessity of being a translator or a connector may not be apparent or deemed beneficial by many. Especially on the latter point – the speaking with the public point. Academics are, after all, pursuing our inner monologues in the bookstacks and who really wants to invite the barbarians in? Fair enough. I will leave that conversation for some other time except to say that as was astutely commented in my previous post, history itself is publicly contested – and not among historians [take, for example, the storm over Profs. Dower and Miyagawa’s class Visualizing Culture].

So, let me focus just on the first type of discussion that we must have – with our colleagues in computer science or those pursuing digital projects in other disciplines. How do we become connectors? What can we offer to the historian as incentive for learning another language? What scholarly benefit could there be to someone who has sunk 8-10 years mastering Arabic or Persian or Sanskrit in learning PhP or XML or Java? This is what we do; that is what they do. Pelikan, again, gives us a wonderful explication:

For it is the repeated experience of those who learn a second language, as it is of those who have always oscillated between their mother tongue and one or more other languages, that the other language sets them free from the confinement of one vocabulary, one semantic system, even one phonetic system, and thus gives them both a freer and a deeper awareness of their own language than they could have had if they had not learned to look at it, as it were, from the outside.

It is exactly the act of speaking with the computer scientist that provides us the scholarly incentive we need. To reimagine our archive digitally is not to déjà vu the print revolution Рit is to reimagine text itself. It is our conversation with the computer scientist that will allow us to see the future of the humanities or the discipline. It will give us another knowledge system to construct without the limitation of print. Yes. I said it, Print is Limited. Let me immediately clarify that I am not saying that print is dead [author is; god is]. We will always have the Book. Ok? Now, can we move on?

Imagine, if you please, a 13th c. Persian text – like the one that I am writing my dissertation on – which exists in 5 manuscripts, one translation done in 1900, and one critical edition done in the 1950s. To get that tenure, it would behoove me to re-assemble the five manuscripts, claim that the translation and the critical edition lack xyz and produce my own book. But, what if I reimagined the text anew. What if I scanned, annotated, tagged all five manuscripts and the translation into a comprehensible data-structure and presented the text so that the reader could peel, as it were, the layers of various recensions; read the translation against the manuscripts; follow the thread or theme in and out of various chapters? And coolest of all: What if my reader could annotate and tag and link my medieval persian text to another medieval persian text and another still? What if the texts spoke to one another and threads connect the reader, the text and the historian?

What do I need to make that text I described above: OCR to scan the text, some database to hold it, XML or SGML to markup the text with meta-information and structure, a query language to get the text back out of the database, CSS to display the data in a browser, some feeds or output available to the public, builtin tagging, comments and Viol√°! That is what my digital text would look like. I am sure, if you sat to imagine it, yours would look like something else. The point is that as historians we cannot use that imagination unless we speak with the programmer and unless we learn a bit of their language. All that is required is to expand our reading a bit. I highly recommend A Companion to Digital Humanities.

So, how do we get to the future of the humanities? My response is a programmatic one. I would like to see training in the tools of the digital trade available to every graduate student in the humanities. I would like to see articles on digital archives published in Journal of Asian Studies and other flagship publications. I would like to see established historians undertake digital projects employing graduate students. I would like to see divisional efforts to nurture and fund such initiatives. If 10 graduate students in South Asian history reading this went and created a digital archive each…we would have 10 digital archives in South Asian history. That’s how far behind we are [ok, I exaggerate a tiny bit]. The good folks at the Center for History and New Media at GMU are a shining beacon of hope in this regard.

Where do we go from here? How about a reading list for historians on digital humanities? How about a forum where historians could speak/converse with programmers? How about talking to these guys? Who’s with me?

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